Presented on Saturday, October 6, 2018 in the Barn at Quarry Farm as part of the Quarry Farm Weekend Symposium "American Literary History and Economics in the New Gilded Age"
Economics historians often deploy the curiously sensational imagery of "revolution" to describe the theoretical innovations that circulated in Europe - and later in England and the United States - beginning in the early 1870s. The so called "Marginalist (or Neo-Classical) Revolution" challenged classical economic theory in a series of major works by William Stanley Jevons, Carl Menger, and Leon Walras, among others. The economic thinking gained traction in the United States with the publication of two books by the Carleton College economics professor (and mentor of Thortein Veblen) John Bates Clark, who published The Philosophy of Wealth in 1885 and The Distribution of Wealth: A Theory of Wages, Interest, and Profits in 1889. This paper attempts to identify the principal theoretical positions that characterize Clark's uniquely American version of marginalist economic understanding. It does so in order to address a fundamental question: to what extent does the "marginal revolution" in American economic thinking manifest itself in literary representations of the Gilded Age economic scene? My preliminary conclusion is that many of the aesthetic dispositions associated with American literary realism (as practiced by William Dean Howells, Theodore Dreiser, and Mark Twain, for example) map onto marginalist thinking about such things as value and social justice with surprisingly consistency. In effect, I will argue that an under-appreciated "Marginalist Revolution" is at work in late nineteenth century American fiction, and that a firmer understanding of the period's economic theory can shed light on aesthetic innovations that have rarely been approached in economic terms.
Henry Wonham is Professor of English at University of Oregon. He is co-editor with Larry Howe of Mark Twain & Money (U.Alabama, 2017) and editor of the new Norton Critical Edition of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (2018). Other publications include Playing the Races: Ethnic Caricature and American Literary Realism (Oxford, 2004) and Mark Twain and the Art of the Tall Tale (Oxford, 1993), as well as numerous essays an editorial work on Mark Twain, Henry James, Charles Chesnutt, and others. Professor Wonham is also associated editor of American Literary Realism and contributed the "Economics of American Literary Realism" chapter to the Routledge Companion to Literature & Economics.